Building a ‘Better World’ with the Barbershop Harmony Society

By Victoria Wasylak

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Mixed harmony chorus A CAPPELLA! engaged audiences on their passionate Grand Ole Opry stage debut. The ensemble hails from James Hubert Blake High School and traveled from Silver Spring, Maryland for the experience of a lifetime.

When The Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) says they believe in “a better world – singing,” they mean it – so much that your choral group could attend one of their national singing conventions with many of the expenses taken care of.

Between the Junior Chorus Invitational in January and the Varsity Chorus Invitational in July, both annual competitions span men’s, women’s, and mixed ensembles in the barbershop world. And for choral directors, schools, and parents who are concerned about the cost of their student singers taking a trip to meet and compete with other groups, BHS offers significant help when it comes to hotel costs and convention registrations.

“We see the value of singing in harmony and want to encourage more people – especially students and young people – to have this fantastic experience,” says Ashley “Lani” Torroll, BHS outreach youth programs coordinator. “The Junior Chorus Invitational at the Midwinter Convention is for singers 18 and under. Once selected, the only fee for registration and overnight accommodations is $100 per singer. We are able to subsidize hotel costs and convention registrations with the generous support of the donors of Harmony Foundation International. All participating choruses receive three free nights at a convention hotel and a complimentary convention registration. Even better – choruses attending for the first time will have the $100 per-singer fee waived. The participating group only has to pay for travel and meals.”

The deal is similar for older student competition, Torroll says. “The Varsity Chorus Invitational is for singers 25 and under, also open to men’s, women’s, and mixed ensembles. It takes place at the International Convention each year in early July. The fee is only $300 per chorus and participants receive a free registration to the event.”

According to BHS, the Midwinter Convention chorus invitational usually averages 600 youth singers, but grew to 900 students this past January. The Varsity Chorus Invitational tends to be smaller, with around 100 singers under 25 participating per year, although there is much room for growth.

“The Varsity Chorus Invitational is a new addition to our long-running Varsity Quartet Contest at the International Convention (which was formerly known as the Youth Barbershop Quartet Contest or Collegiate Barbershop Quartet Contest),” explains Holly J. Kellar, BHS chief marketing officer. “We hope that with the addition of inviting choruses, that number will grow! We have openings for five choruses and welcome applications from around the world.”

And BHS does get applications from around the world – as far away at the other side of globe, like this particularly spirited group from Hong Kong.

“The Diocesan Boys Choir joined us for the 2016 Midwinter Convention in Reno all the way from Hong Kong, China,” adds Joe Cerutti, BHS director of outreach. “Despite the fact that these young men were new to barbershop, they wowed the audience with their performances of ‘Show Me Where the Good Times Are’ and ‘You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine.’ A cappella legend Deke Sharon was so impressed that he honored them with the Presenter’s Award. We believe this is a fantastic example of how music and harmony can cross borders and barriers.”

For directors who still might be hesitant, Cerutti broke down the overall benefits that comes from BHS competitions, from effective evaluation to plentiful education opportunities.

“With these chorus invitationals for young adults, we are trying to do two things. First, it’s an opportunity for personal growth. We want to give them the opportunity to sing ‘on the big stage’ in front of an enthusiastic audience,” he explains. “The practicing and preparation, focus and dedication necessary to get to that point are invaluable. But then we take it a step further. In addition to getting a score, the groups have an opportunity for feedback and evaluation from the panel of judges, as well as master classes and other opportunities to work with top clinicians in the field, including singing in the mass choir.  It’s not just a performance or a contest — it’s multiple opportunities to continue growing and improving.”

He continues: “Beyond the individual impact, the second thing that we’re trying to do is to build a community of singers and showcase the value of singing in harmony.  You can’t sing in harmony by yourself! Singing is something that you can do your whole life and we believe in the tremendous power and value of life-long singing.  Introducing young singers to this wonderful, supportive, multi-generational community of singers is often life-changing. The youth have the opportunity to see adult and Senior quartets and choruses — giving the youth something to which they can aspire.  In addition, past barbershop International Champions are incredibly approachable, so it’s not uncommon to see groups of students and past champions clustered together in the hotel hallway singing between events! Choral directors have told us that they and their students are blown away by the welcoming atmosphere and general camaraderie of the event.”

Choral groups can view qualifications and enter to compete at www.barbershop.org/next-gen/junior-quartets-choruses and www.barbershop.org/next-gen/varsity

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